The four outfielders acquired by Atlanta in 2021 after the mid-season ACL tear suffered by Ronald Acuna, Jr. are available again as free agents – and likely to appeal to the team in its search for an established left-fielder.
Adam Duvall, who already had two stints with the Braves, is a former Gold Glove winner whose best position is an outfield corner. But he won’t budge Acuna Jr., who is favored to win National League Most Valuable Player honors next week, or center-fielder Michael Harris II, a 2023 Gold Glove finalist.
Jorge Soler, another right-handed hitter, isn’t as accomplished defensively but showed the baseball world his power when he won World Series MVP honors for the ‘21 Braves.
Fun-loving Joc Pederson, remembered for distributing strings of white pearls to players during Atlanta’s winning post-season and to fans in the victory parade that followed, would not only bring left-handed pop but a personality that would help keep teammates laughing and loose.
And then there’s Rosario, the 2021 NLCS MVP, whose $9 million club option was declined but does not prevent him from returning with a reworked contract. Like Pederson, he bats left-handed and could be part of a platoon.
According to Front Office Sports, the Braves signed fewer free agents (3) and spent less in free agency last winter ($3,015,000) than any other team.
That could change after Chairman of the Board Terry McGuirk told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the team is likely to hike its payroll for the third straight season – even if it means paying a luxury tax.
The Braves topped the $233MM base tax threshold in 2023 and are likely to do that again in 2024, when the first threshold rises to $237MM.
Atlanta has $165 million in guaranteed salaries for 2024, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, plus an arbitration class – headed by star pitcher Max Fried – that could cost $30 million more.
But the team sold 3.2 million tickets to home games at Truist Park and reaped a financial windfall from club-owned businesses in the Battery, a pedestrian-friendly network of shops, bistros, bars, and restaurants adjacent to the suburban ballpark.
The coffers are not bare; Forbes valued the Braves at $2.6 billion last March and Atlanta Braves Holdings, Inc, the public company that owns both the Atlanta Braves Major League Baseball Club and The Battery Atlanta, reported a third-quarter profit of $272M, an 11 per cent growth from the same quarter of 2022, according to figures from Fan Nation Braves Today.
President of Baseball Operations Alex Anthopoulos, 49, has signed his core of young stars to long-term contracts but wouldn’t meet the salary demands of shortstop Dansby Swanson or first baseman Freddie Freeman over the last two free-agent seasons. They signed with the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers, respectively.
Nor has Anthopoulos paid any player more than the 10-year, $212 million deal signed by third baseman Austin Riley on Aug. 1, 2022.
Sometimes described as a riverboat gambler for his willingness to take chances, Anthopoulos knows landing a left-fielder is his top priority, with pitching help a close second.
If none of the four former Braves from the ‘21 team return, alternate options include free agents Lourdes Gurriel, Jr., Teoscar Hernandez, Tommy Pham, or soon-to-be-converted infielder Vaughn Grissom, who hit .330 for Triple-A Gwinnett.
Grissom would be the cheapest option but has no major-league experience in the outfield – an assignment he is scheduled to tackle during spring training.
“We have a list of guys that are fit for us,” Anthopoulos told reporters earlier this week. “Those are the guys we’ll have conversations with, whether that’s trade or free agency. ‘Tis the season for talking. But it’s not the season for talking specific plans.
“I don’t want people to know what we’re trying to do, other than we want to make the team better.”
Over the past two off-seasons, he’s pulled off multi-player trades for catcher Sean Murphy and first baseman Matt Olson, then signed both within days of their arrivals. Both were National League All-Stars in 2023.
This winter, Anthopoulos exercised the club option on starting pitcher Charlie Morton, who will earn $20 million at age 40 but serve as a veteran clubhouse presence for 20-game winner Spencer Strider, who led the majors in strikeouts, and erstwhile ace Max Fried, hoping to rebound from an injury-riddled campaign.
Bidding to complete the rotation are Bryce Elder, an All-Star before fading last year, and Huascar Ynoa, a former starter returning from Tommy John surgery.
Free agents with Atlanta connections include Jack Flaherty and Lucas Giolito, Fried’s high school teammates in Santa Monica, and Aaron Nola, who worked with Braves pitching coach Rick Kranitz when both were in Philadelphia.
Promising prospects AJ Smith-Shawver and Hurston Waldrep could also be in the mix, along with Dylan Dodd, Jared Shuster, and Michael Soroka, a former All-Star derailed by a pair of Achilles surgeries.
In addition, former World Series hero Ian Anderson may be ready to return by the All-Star break after Tommy John elbow surgery.
The bullpen should get a big boost when hard-throwing lefty Tyler Matzek, a post-season stud in previous years, is medically certified to pitch after elbow surgery of his own.
The Braves led the majors with 104 wins last year but fell to Philadelphia in a four-game Division Series for the second straight time – thwarting the club’s hopes of recapturing the world championship it won in 2021.